Don’t be mistaken: Alice in Slasherland, the latest work by the geek-chic stage combat virtuosos that are the Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company, has nothing to do with Lewis Carroll’s fabled tale, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; it’s not even connected to Tim Burton’s current film remake. But one would also be mistaken to miss out on this highly enjoyable, skillful production. The closest any action gets to Carroll’s classic is in the character naming of Slasherland, written by Qui Nguyen, directed by Robert Ross Parker, and playing at HERE Arts Center. Carlo Alban plays high school outcast Lewis, nursing a crush on childhood friend and cheerleader Margaret (Bonnie Sherman). Much to his chagrin, this feeling is not reciprocated. Margaret leaves a Halloween party with the more popular Duncan (Sheldon Best).
Frustrated, Lewis unwittingly channels some carnivorous demons to his high school, leaving it up to him, Margaret, and an odd, largely mute woman named, naturally, Alice (Amy Kim Waschke) to fend these deadly creatures off. Alice is an amalgam of La Femme Nikita and Samarra, the young girl from the Ring movies. Waschke’s portrayal has her speaking and moving in halting rhythms. We think she’s on the side of the good guys, but we’re never quite sure.
Slasherland could come off as merely mindless, derivative drivel if it weren’t for two things. First of all, the technical skill at play here (nothing strange to those who have seen other Vampire Cowboys shows like Fight Girl Battle World or Soul Samurai) is absolute wizardry. Nguyen’s fight choreography is adroit without ever crossing the line into being too violent; despite a healthy amount of blood spatter, Slasherland knows it is a send-up of teen horror flicks but never tries to enter that canon. It’s happy enough to mock from afar. Additionally, Matthew Tennie’s multimedia design provides for some hysterical moments, including a “sneak preview” that runs at the show’s commencement. Jessica Shay also is to be commended for her outstanding costumes.
The second thing elevating Slasherland is just how fun it is. Nguyen and Parker have invented some ingenious theatricalities to keep their show both fun and fresh throughout. These include a death montage set to Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (don’t worry, it plays much better than it might read) and a teddy bear puppet named Edgar who joins Lewis, Margaret and Alice in their quest to annihilate bad guys. (David Valentine takes care of the puppet design.) Best deserves extra props, so to speak, for his ability to operate Edgar and personify him with hedonistic wit.
The Vampire Cowboys have also assembled a cast that knows how to deliver dialogue with the right dollop of camp. Alban and Sherman seem to be having a terrific time onstage and deliver great tongue-in-cheek performances. Andrea Marie Smith is hysterical as both a bitchy teen and an additional character who appears at show’s end who might be even more evil.
Waschke handles Alice’s craziness with care. On the page, her character is the hardest to understand, and therefore the least funny, but Waschke plays her scenes with such mastery that it is sure to elicit guffaws from anyone playing close attention.
The only element of Slasherland that feels gratuitous is Nguyen’s back-and-forth narration. The play skips around to moments in the past and then back to the present within the week where the show’s action occurs. It is actually more confusing to do this than let the play move linearly. I wasn’t sure at various points when Alice and Lewis had first met and how much they had bonded, and what the extent of Duncan and Margaret’s relationship was. Just let the demons wreak havoc and get their comeuppance in the proper order.
Fortunately, that’s what happens for the most part. It’s hard to re-fashion a movie of any kind for the stage, harder to still to do it well. And yet that’s what Slasherland achieves. Nguyen, Parker and the rest of the Vampire Cowboys have taken a dismissed movie subgenre and created a production that should be seen by all. Or else.